Figuring Out Emergent

The United Methodist News Service is trying to figure out the “Emerging Church” movement. In two articles they explore the nature of these churches and discover that they contain quite a bit of variety. Not a great surprise. I’ve done some stuff with Emergent & its people in the past, so I’ll share from my own perspective.

Emergent Village defines itself as a “conversation.” They avoid dogmatism – either theological or ecclesiastical. Most of the people I’ve met (Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Chris Seay, Brad Cecil, etc.) come from an Evangelical background – think Bible Church, Reformed and Southern Baptist. To my evangelical United Methodist ears they sound like they could easily be taken as liberals by their communities of origin. Such a label would be mistaken, however. They have learned much from theologians with a postmodern tilt – Stan Grenz, Stanley Hauerwas, Miroslav Volf. From my evangelical UM perspective, it sounds like they’re finally learning from the broader Christian tradition – and thus not all that new from our point of view. But to take the movement as solely or even primarily theological would be a mistake. It’s a conversation, not an institution. They’re not seeking power over anyone. Who is accepted as a conversation partner? In my experience they’re very open. As evangelicals they didn’t look at my United Methodism and reject me as hopelessly tainted with liberalism (as others have in the past). You can check out the conversation at their blog.

If Emegent has a bias, it is toward reaching the culture that has found American Christian culture irrelevant. This is where they rub a lot of their fellow evangelicals the wrong way. For modern evangelicals, the problem with modern culture is its atheism, its active rejection of Christian truth claims. From what the Emergent folk have seen, however, the question of truth has shifted from the theoretical to the pragmatic. Instead of facing moderns who hold to only one truth – knowing Christianity isn’t it – they face a new cohort who admit to many truths and seek to create their own path through the mess. In the midst of this creativity the Emergent folk hold to Jesus as the truth – not merely as the messenger of truth (in line with some forms of modern Christianity – and Mohammed in Islam) but as truth personified. Their passion to reach this generation has led them to where they are.

I like the Emergent people. They’re fun to be around. Most of my ministry, however, is in established churches with long term Christians. Most of the young people in my small town setting are at least nominal Christians. They take traditional ways of doing church as the way to go. So I’ve had less occasion to hang out with the Emergent folk than I would like. We’ll see what happens in the future (when I become an old geezer).

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7 Responses to Figuring Out Emergent

  1. John says:

    I think that Emergent can be classed as a form of liberal theology because liberalism is inherently post-modern, and Emergent identifies itself as post-modern.

  2. Richard H says:

    Actually liberalism started out as a version of modernism, rooted in a pessmistic version of foundationalist epistemology. When George Lindbeck wrote The Nature of Doctrine and introduced the idea of “Post Liberal” theology, he tried to show a way beyond modernism. Now on my read his work is clearly postLIBERAL – it still evidences certain theological convictions of liberalism. In other words, just because liberalism was built a particular philosophical base, it developed some non-philosophical (theological) positions peculiar to it.

    One thing to keep in mind also is that there are varieties of postmodernity. The Neo-Nietzscheans (including people like Derrida & Foucault), the Pragmatists (Rorty, Quine, etc.), the neo-Hegelians (Charles Taylor), the Heideggerians, and the neo-Aristotelians (Stephen Long, Alasdair MacIntyre). Personally, the variety of postmodernism I found most congenial has three key elements:
    1. A rejection of the centrality of epistemology
    2. A rejection of radical individualism.
    3. A recovery of the historical

    Modernity took the opposite position on each of these. And as far as Emergent goes, they appear to part with modernity on each of these also. Now it is possible that you – I know some people do – consider these commitments of modernity to be necessary to Christianity. But that’s another argument.
    Thanks for reading.

  3. Guy says:

    You wrote:
    “From my evangelical UM perspective, it sounds like they’re finally learning from the broader Christian tradition – and thus not all that new from our point of view.”

    I would agree with this statement wholeheartedly. The buzz surrounding Emergent is that its folks are revisioning Christianity big-time. But in my exposure to them, this hasn’t really been the case. It’s been more like folks whose theological “family of origin” wasn’t in meaningful contact with the rest of the Church (across time and geography) and these folks are coming into conversation with the larger Church, which is highlighting a deficiency in the conservative church’s modernist worldview (one that is not friendly to Scriptural Christianity) and they are moving to a worldview that rejects these deficiencies and embraces Scripture/Tradition and Incarnational mission in ways that comport with the current American/Western culture.

    As for the 3 elements upon which modernity and postmodernity disagree, 1)centrality of epistemology, 2)radical individualism, and 3)recovery of the historical, I would line up fully with #s 2 & 3. But I have questions about #1. I suspect the rub is somewhere in the “centrality” part of it, because surely epistemology is very important. What’s to gain either by affirming its centrality or rejecting it? It seems to me that a good bit of the rub is over the kind of or approach to epistemology that postmoderns or Emergents have vs. that of moderns or fundamentalists/conservative evangelicals. The abandonment of the modernists’ or conservative evangelicals’ epistemological principles is what seems to open wide the door (in their eyes) to charges of “liberalism.”

    Finally, my guess is that I might actually “do church” in ways in conversation with Emergent, but as a UM pastor, that may or may not be.

  4. Richard H says:

    The problem with the “centrality of epistemology” is that for moderns you have to get your epistemology right and in place before you do anything else. For liberal modern Christians you have to do all your critiques of tradition and fully deploy your hermeutic of suspicion before you move on. For conservative modern Christians you need to have your doctrine of scripture (inerrancy the leading candidate) fully anchored before you move on. Because both routes require certainty (though finding it in different sources), both run into trouble when certainty is lacking. And it usually is lacking. Now if you’re a modern and you hear this, you think the only other option – once you fail to attain certainty – is to lapse into skepticism. But by not being centered on epistemology (without rejecting it altogether like Rorty tends to do), I can recognize I lack certainty while at the same time saying the state of my knowledge on a given issue is “good enough.” From what I’ve seen, doubt, whether in the context of liberal or conservative modernity, is a powerful acid that can never be completely satisfied.

  5. Guy says:

    Thanks. Part of me wonders if the recovery of history is, in part, an appreciation for a different approach to epistemology.

    In my present thinking (that’s in process) on epistemology, especially as pertains to God and spiritual experience, knowing is somewhere at the intersection of Spirit, Word and Community–Community encompassing Christians through time and across the globe (so I don’t have a problem in speaking of Tradition with a capital “T”). Central to my understanding of epistemology is Divine Revelation: God’s self-revelation to people in history, first through Abraham and Israel and culminating in the person of Jesus Christ. The Spirit worked in, with, through, etc persons who were witnesses of God’s self-revelation to compose writings, and then worked again through the communities of faith to canonize the writings that are most faithful and reliable guides for experiencing God’s self-revelation. The Community passes on, joins in discerning and interpreting, and lives the Story of God’s self-revelation in the world.

    But herein lies mystery. We must approach our Scriptures and our interpretations with a mix of faith and doubt, confidence but humility, because we are aware of our misuse and poor hearing in the past (and present) of God’s Word. So, we’ve got to be humble about where we are on something while facing the challenge of taking stands when duty demands it.

    Modernity in its conservative and liberal forms is once again asking the wrong questions and presenting false choices (like the “inerrancy” category). I’ve been needing to get my epistemological thinking in print and work on it, so I appreciate the opportunity to look at the epistemology question not only from within (what is mine?), but also from outside (what’s the place/status of the question?).

  6. Richard H says:

    One way to look at the reclamation of history in theology is to see it as a rejection of the world in which Lessing’s Ugly Ditch is a Ugly and a problem. Christianity just isn’t about “necessary truths of reason” – “Religion” might be, but not Christianity. Christianity is about the story of God’s action in creation and Jesus. We’re stuck in the middle of it – no outside vantage point to look in and dissect things.

  7. Guy says:

    Yes, we Christians inhabit the world that is God’s; we do not stand outside of it, observing and evaluating it from a distanced viewpoint, as if that would yield better understanding.

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